Seven Deadly Words

By Bethany McAllister, Esq.

No seven words threaten an immigrant’s future more than “I’ll take your green card away.” The very first time that immigrants hear these seven words they believe that they will lose the life that they have established in the US.

However, every immigrant will ask the same seven questions. “Did I really hear what I thought that I just heard?”; “What will happen to my children?”; “ What happens if I get divorced?”; “What will people say?”; “Why is this happening to me?”; “Why?”; “What am I going to do?”

Immigrants who know that their spouses “will take their green cards away” understandably believe that they have no other choice than to accept an uncertain fate. Unfortunately, the balance of power in domestic situations is tipped in favor of the abusers. The very instant that an abusive spouse recognizes that he/she has power over the other’s future, the cycle of abuse will never end. And now it is perfectly clear to the victim that there will be no green card without blackmail.

From my experience there are two unavoidable facts in immigration law. First, all abusive citizens blackmail their spouses. Second, all abusive citizens threaten to withhold or take a green card away.

Actually, the biggest lie in marriage-based green card cases is that citizens have the power to grant, deny, and rescind permanent resident status. In fact, no citizen possesses this power. A citizen’s involvement does not extend beyond filing the immigrant petition. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“CIS”) has the authority over immigration benefits.

When a citizen files an immigrant petition, he and his spouse still have the obligation to establish eligibility. Unfortunately, an abusive spouse strengthens the blackmail by convincing the victim that he/she can take a green card away by notifying CIS that his wife committed immigration fraud. Because this is a very real possibility, foreigners must be proactive and remember that they will have the opportunity to tell their side of the story—even if they have to do so in court. Nevertheless, an attorney may help to keep the abused foreigner out of court.

An important fact is that U.S. immigration law does not penalize foreigners by requiring them to stay married to abusers. Unfortunately, very few immigrants and their families and friends are aware that they have safe and healthy options. Victims of domestic violence can establish eligibility for permanent resident status without relying on petitions filed by their abusers. They have a right to file their own immigrant petitions (on a special form). Now, abused immigrants should no longer limit themselves to seven questions. They just have to ask themselves one more question: “Why should I stay?” The answer is even better: “I don’t have to.”

The solution is the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”). VAWA enables victims of domestic violence to establish eligibility for permanent resident status if, and only if, they can prove three things:

First, they must prove that they married the citizen in good faith. In other words, they must prove that they did not marry the US citizen just to get a green card. They do not have to prove that they did not want the green card (of course they wanted the green card).

Second they must prove that they are victims of physical abuse to themselves or to their children.

Third, if there is no physical abuse to themselves or to their children, they must prove that they are victims of extreme mental cruelty. Remember, mental cruelty is not sufficient. The mental cruelty must be extreme.

These are legal standards. Evidence is always essential and legal professionals will help to properly submit all evidence, especially in cases where there is very little written and traditionally-documented evidence.

Creative and dedicated attorneys will have the ability to establish a solid case without traditional forms of evidence. A VAWA applicant should not fail to pursue this avenue based on the belief that there is insufficient evidence. VAWA exists to help domestic violence victims and recognizes that by nature, victims will not necessarily have traditional forms of evidence. VAWA petitioners should consider hiring an immigration attorney or a non-profit organization dedicated to this purpose. Non-profit organizations often handle VAWA cases for free or for a very minimal fee. As always, it is a good start to find a local attorney who is patient and compassionate. This is one area of immigration law where the client must feel comfortable with the attorney.

A client should strongly consider the “comfort level” that the client has with the attorney as a primary factor in making the decision to retain the attorney. If the client does not feel comfortable with the attorney, she will prejudice her case by failing to disclose information essential to establishing an approvable case.

The best part about VAWA cases is that CIS is legally obligated to deprive the abuser or anyone associated with the abuser from knowing anything about the case. In fact, VAWA cases are 100% private. Approved VAWA cases grant other benefits such as the right to apply for work authorization and public social services.

Can men benefit from VAWA? The answer: Yes. In one case, a man arranged for his nephew to marry his divorced daughter.

He blackmailed his son-in-law by requiring him to work in his gas stations for 16 hours a day and 7 days a week without compensation and while depriving him from proper living accommodations. This particular young man had to sleep in the family’s basement. He only had access to the bathroom and food after asking to enter the main home during specific hours. The son-in-law had also had the fear of bringing shame to his family because the father-in-law made it perfectly clear that he had no reservations in reporting to the family abroad that he used or sold drugs and was sexually deviant and promiscuous.

This abuse is not physical, but it may result in severe depression and constitute extreme mental cruelty.

There is No Shame in Reporting Domestic Violence

Abusers are sometimes very successful in blackmailing foreign spouses because the latter are here without a support network. Abusive citizens understand very well that their spouses are isolated. They rarely speak English, do not have reliable transportation, do not have access to their own money, and have no means to sustain themselves independent of their abusers. Abused foreigners are also very ashamed to seek help.

Women face difficulties because their cultures may insist that women trigger domestic violence and therefore deserve the consequences. Women may also fear that their families will ostracize them in the event of a divorce.

Many women find also it difficult to believe that husbands can rape their wives and therefore do not characterize spousal rape as domestic violence. U.S. immigration law does, however, acknowledge that husbands do rape their wives.

No matter what a rape victim is told or believes about herself, she must understand that since there is no stigma for being a victim of any crime, there is no stigma for rape.

This article does not constitute legal advice and those with immigration problems should seek out the services of a competent immigration specialist.

Ms. McAllister is an attorney in private practice in Dearborn, MI. Please direct immigration inquiries to Ms. McAllister by telephone at 313.581.4411.


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